How I Started (circa 2007)

I stumbled upon an archive of documents I created in 2007, my third year of teaching. Nested six folders deep inside a directory labeled “School,” I found a document called AP Lesson Plan - Introduction - Day 1. In 2007, I taught two sections of AP Psychology to 11th and 12th graders. This was the document I used to draft my ideas for starting that class. Looking at it, two things stand out to me.

First, I was much more intentional than I remember. In this lesson plan, I listed goals, materials, action steps, and student deliverables. The plan reads like something I intended to hand to someone else down the road, yet that was never my goal. I remember spending a lot of time writing plans like this thinking it would save so much time later in my career. It did.

Second, I didn’t review my syllabus on the first day of class. Instead, I performed a magic trick to get them thinking about the need for control in psychological experimentation. Along with the trick, I shared a long, obviously ficticious, story about hitting my head over the summer and awakening a clairvoyant; I could see the future. The trick backed up my far-fetched claim with some fairly convincing (or at least entertaining) data.

Their task was to identify aspects of my demonstration (variables) that would disprove my claim. I would collect their ideas on the board. When all ideas appeared to be exhausted, I would have them prioritize the ideas down to the one (independent) variable they think would be most likely to disprove my clairvoyance.

I remember being hung up on the difference between psychology, the science, and the kind of psychology my students see and hear about on television. I wanted to make an early impression that, by controlling variables, we can make educated predictions that test psychological phenomenon, and that this was the type of psychology we would be studying in my class: the kind that is testable and scientific.

I never assessed their understanding of experimental design; it wasn’t yet my goal. I simply wanted to demonstrate that clear, nerdy thinking about something as silly as a magic trick, could lead to deeper understanding. And, I wanted to have fun. This was, after all, my students’ first introduction to me, their teacher, and psychology, the subject they would be studying with me over the next year. I didn’t want this day to be about rules, processes, or my pet peeves. I wanted it to be about fun and science!

My first homework assignment for them was to do three things:

  1. Read and understand the entire syllabus.
  2. Give their parents my introduction letter.
  3. Return their signed parent statement by the end of the week.

The very next class started with a quiz over the syllabus. In hindsight, it was pretty nitpicky, but remember this was an AP class and I was trying to instill a high expectation. For most students, it worked. They came in with a firm understanding of my syllabus. For all, it sent the message that I would hold them accountable to the work I asked them to complete.

After quizzing them on the syllabus and answering questions on the second day of class, we’d get to know each other, employing a series of cognitive strategies until everyone knew each others’ names.

We’d start content on the third day, which because of block scheduling didn’t come until the second week of school.

That’s how I started my year as a teacher in 2007.